A century later, McGehee students frequently visit the French Quarter home — now a museum — to gain insight into the past and to develop an appreciation for the women who’ve gone before them.
Mamie Sterkx Gasperecz, executive director of the Hermann-Grima Historic House, calls the McGehee students “the Grima girls.”
Field trips to the two-story brick house built in 1831 by Samuel Hermann, a German-Jewish cotton merchant, and later sold to Judge Felix Grima, allow educators to “start roots of preservation and perspectives,” Gasperecz said.
Last week, McGehee fourth-graders were guided through the elegant home on the Ladies and Gentlemen tour to ponder 19th century gender roles and compare them to contemporary expectations.
New Orleans women in that era enjoyed greater legal rights than women in other parts of the country, said Jill Dresser, educational specialist at the Hermann-Grima House. Women, including women of color, could own and inherit property, she told the girls.
Home was a woman’s domain in those days, Dresser said. They were responsible for meal planning, oversight of children and servants, purchases of household goods and planning for social engagements.
“Girls were head of the households — that surprised me,” said Bella Frankowski, 10. “They actually were the rulers of the house.” In the formal dining room, docents described the sumptuous meals enjoyed by members of the Grima family, including two or three main courses, each with up to 12 dishes. Every course was served on hand-painted china imported from France.
“I’d get sick of eating food!” said Amelia Perret, 9, accustomed to casual, half-hour dinners.
Diners were not obligated to consume everything on their plates, but to sample every course, said Branden Tucker, a Hermann-Grima docent.
“I don’t know how they can make all the food and not worry about throwing it away,” Bella exclaimed.
But 19th century children were not even welcomed into the dining room until their teens, when manners and conversation skills were expected to have become more refined. Instead, the five young Grima children took all their meals inside their bedrooms.
“Dinner gets in the way of homework,” Lynn Mary Hammel said, thinking about the three-hour meals.
Children were meant to be “seen but not heard,” so the Grima children played games and completed academic and music lessons in their rooms. Servants raised the children, while their parents worked, traveled and socialized.
“Being stuck in your room’s not the greatest thing,” said Lynn Mary. “I’d be bored out of my mind.”
“They didn’t have a dog or cat,” Megan Mayeaux noted.
Dresser showed them Adelaide Grima’s 6-foot-wide hoop skirt and tight corsets, which were worn even by young girls. She demonstrated the proper way to sit down while wearing a hoop skirt and petticoats.
“I don’t know how you can be comfortable in that!” Megan protested.
The highlight of the tour was Sophie Hava’s demonstration of open-hearth cooking. She prepared pain perdu (French toast or “lost bread” in French) to taste.
“In particular, I love the kitchen because that is where the whole household converged,” Gasperecz said. “Mrs. Grima would have overseen the cook.”
A kitchen separated from the main house was typical; cooking fires were hazardous and a leading cause of death. Normally, two to four slaves would work over the hearth, beehive oven and stewhole or “potager” for slow cooking.
“It’s like our modern today kitchen, but different,” Bella said. “They used fires instead of a stove.”
Children’s education is a primary aspect of the museum’s mission. “The excitement of children carries the spirit through to the staff and our jobs,” Gasperecz said. “We let them touch something, smell something and create a memory.”
Said Bella: “This is the most fascinating field trip I’ve ever taken. I’d give the tour a four- to five-star rating.”
Mary Rickard , contributing writer, can be reached at email@example.com.
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